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FC Astana’s group stage debut shows how far Kazakh football has come

FC Astana’s Baurzhan DzholchiyevFC Astana’s Baurzhan Dzholchiyev and Inaki Asti of APOEL in action during the UEFA Champions League play off in Nicosia. Photograph: Getty Images

On Wednesday, the players of FC Astana will board a plane in Lisbon and fly east for 3830 miles to get home. To put that in context, that’s 400 miles further than flying from London to New York. If they drove (non-stop), the journey would take them 77 hours and take them through nine countries and five time zones. It is, in short, a long way. But those players will make the journey having made history, as the first Kazakh side to play in the group stage of the Champions League.

That’s still far from vindicating the decision the Kazakh federation (KSF) made in 2002 to apply to join Uefa, but it is, perhaps, a start. Although in July 2002 Zhenis Astana took the lead after eight minutes away to the Moldovan side Sheriff in the first European tie contested by a Kazakh club, progress has been slow. Tobol Kostanay won one of the three Intertoto Cups in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2013-14 that Shakhter Karagandy became the first Kazakh club to reach the group stage of the Europa League. As Celtic fans will remember, they were very close to the group stage of the Champions League that season, winning the home leg of their play-off 2-0, only to go down 3-0 at Parkhead.

Astana’s progress hasn’t come from nowhere. In 2013-14 Aktobe got to the play-off round of the Europa League. Last season, Aktobe entered at that point (and lost) while Astana won through three qualifying rounds to get there and Shakhter fell one round short. That might not sound like much, but given where Kazakhs were coming from, it was meaningful progress. It’s significant too that the charge is led by three teams – perhaps now including Kairat Almaty, beaten in the play-off round of the Europa League this season, rather than Shakhter who have slipped to second bottom in the table. Although Astana are owned and funded by the state, this isn’t about one side with greater resources than the rest but about a general improvement in Kazakh standards.

Whether that is enough to justify the move into Uefa is another matter. In that time, the national team has slipped from 117th to 145th in the world and is further away from qualifying for a World Cup than it ever was in the Asian Football Confederation. They lie bottom of their group in qualifying for Euro 2016 with two points and five goals from eight games – although earlier this month they did become the first side to avoid defeat away to Iceland in this qualifying series.

“Our experts are deeply convinced that our football today needs to be part of Uefa, which in our opinion has the most developed and progressive system of football in the world, ” a KSF statement said when making its application. The then-president of the KSF, Rakhat Aliyev, believed that Kazakhstan would develop more quickly playing tougher opposition and recognised that playing the likes of Ukraine, Turkey, Denmark and Greece – teams they played in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup – would generate far more interest than games against Iraq, Nepal and Macau, their opponents in the 2002 qualification. And while the distances to travel to games were vast, they were still generally shorter than in the AFC.

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